If there was any doubt that the drawn-out primary season is taking a toll on the Democratic Party's chances for victory in November, look no further than the events of April 15. As and raised the stakes (and the rhetoric) in Pennsylvania, finally decided to frame the economic debate. His speech on the economy got full cable TV coverage, while stories on Obama and Clinton were focused exclusively on "bitterness." The economy was supposed to be Democrats' ace in the hole this year. After all, a Republican can't win in the Rust Belt when the economy is in the tank, right?
McCain's speech touched on a lot of familiar territory, such as ending earmarks, ditching the alternative minimum tax and attacking Democrats as tax-and-spenders. On job retraining, McCain once again reminded his audience about jobs that are "not coming back." That phrase fell like a lead balloon in the face of Mitt Romney when he promised to fight for lost auto industry jobs in Michigan.
But McCain's speech began, notably, with an empathetic approach to those impacted by the economic downturn. He railed against the "extravagant salaries and severance deals of CEOs," and he called for a summer holiday on gas taxes.
The "I feel your pain" McCain is also featured in a new ad currently running in Pennsylvania and Ohio. It features an upbeat voice-over and hits on some of the same concerns raised in the speech -- like portable and affordable health care and mortgage debt restructuring. He may still offer some "straight talk," but it has a decidedly less "eat your vegetables" tone.
To be sure, McCain's overall economic philosophy hasn't changed (as the Democratic White House hopefuls were quick to point out in e-mailed press releases), but his approach may have. Will it be enough to win the support of voters who are decidedly pessimistic about the economy and President Bush? Or will Democratic attacks on his support for (and previous disavowal of) the Bush tax cuts undermine his credibility on the issue? More important, can McCain buck historical trends and win the White House by carrying Rust Belt voters in a recession?
Gallup has measured voter satisfaction with the direction of the country since 1979. Today, just 19 percent of Americans say they are satisfied. Only twice in the poll's history have voters felt more pessimistic than they do today: in 1979, when that measure sank to an all-time low of 12 percent, and in June 1992 (14 percent).
In the presidential elections of 1980 and 1992, the incumbent party was defeated soundly and the Rust Belt went overwhelmingly to the challenger. In his rout of President Jimmy Carter in '80, Ronald Reagan took all the Rust Belt states except Minnesota and West Virginia, after Carter had carried most of the region four years earlier. In '92, Bill Clinton carried Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, after George H.W. Bush had won most of the Rust Belt states in 1988.
This year, Democrats are counting on attracting Reagan Democrats by pointing to the flailing economy. This issue more than any other could help the party overcome the "culture gap" that has sent these voters into the arms of the GOP for the last few years.
Republicans were giddy about Obama's comments on guns, religion and bitterness, since they allowed the GOP to frame Obama in the mold of Michael Dukakis and John Kerry. But the brie/endive/Chardonnay attacks of '88 and '04 came when the GOP brand was in much better shape. Wind-surfin', Swiss-cheesesteak eatin', French-lookin' Kerry still won Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Why would Obama do any worse?
The answer, of course, gets us right back to the uncomfortable issue of race -- or at least that's the conclusion many reach when considering why Obama's not been able to break through with downscale white voters. Just imagine if Joseph Biden or Christopher Dodd had made similar remarks; would they be written off with autoworkers in Michigan?
Democratic superdelegates seem to have little choice but to rally behind Obama. But if Obama wins the nomination without the support of Rust Belt working-class whites, will McCain be able to pick off what should be reliable blue states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, as well as swing states like Ohio?
If Obama doesn't take Ohio in the general, he could still get to 270 electoral votes by carrying New Mexico and Iowa (states won by Al Gore but not Kerry), but he would then need to pick up six more EVs to win the election; a win in Colorado (9 EVs) or Virginia (13 EVs) would do it. But if he loses in Pennsylvania or Michigan, the path to 270 gets much more difficult. Obama may espouse a new kind of politics, but the old-school Rust Belt remains the key to winning the White House.